Are These End Times for Meat?

Bacon shortage hoax aside, there is a major crisis looming in our meat supply

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Daniel Acker / Bloomberg / Getty Images

A pig farm in Strawn, Ill., March 22, 2012.

I’m happy that last week’s bacon shortage turned out to be something of a hoax, as critics like Slate’s Matt Yglesias took pains to make clear. Not that anybody was really that alarmed; the news was fodder for all kinds of comedy. Hailed as the “aporkalypse” by the Huffington Post, it was greeted by Stephen Colbert as an Obama-borne stalking horse for sharia law. The story passed into and out of the news cycle in approximately three days, or one-fourth the time of Lady Gaga’s muffintop.

(MORE: So That Unavoidable Bacon Shortage? You Can Stop Freaking Out Now)

But while the bacon panic wasn’t real, there is a crisis in our meat supply and it’s no joke. We produce a lot of meat, but we feed a lot of Americans, and more all the time, thanks to the simple laws of multiplication, along with the simple addition of immigration. There is a drought, so there is less grain and corn for the animals to eat. Most of the producers are marginally profitable at best, and Americans refuse to pay more for meat than they do for Froot Loops, despite the fact that no one has to raise and feed and kill and process Froot Loops. I’m not kidding about this: go to the supermarket and see how much a package of pork chops cost, or half a chicken, and then compare that price to a box of Froot Loops.

All the things that consumers have, rightly, come to fear and distrust about the meat industry are a result of this problem. Hormones, to make the animals grow faster? Check. Antibiotics, to allow animals be cramped and crammed and stressed without dying of infections? Check. Farrowing crates and beak clipping, so as to squeeze more meat more efficiently out of factories? Check. Even the vile pink slime that everyone hates so much is simply a product, literally, of the beef industry’s need to get maximal yield out of each animal. We all love happy animals on small farms, but there’s no way to feed Americans living in or near poverty, as well as having tons of meat to export to China and elsewhere. The result is that producers are bumping off animals as fast as they can and getting out of the business before feed costs get worse and they are forced out. That’s where the bacon shortage comes in. Less pigs, less pork, less pork bellies for yummy, smoky bacon.

(MORE: Does Jewish Food Have a Future?)

There is also the ethanol problem. “Corn used to cost us two to three dollars a bushel,” Scott Sechler, the owner of Bell & Evans, a high-end chicken producer, told me. “Now it’s eight or nine. That’s why you’re seeing all these shortcuts and other issues in the meat business. We have started a food inflation cycle that may grow out of control.” (Disclosure: Bell & Evans is a sponsor of my annual event Meatopia.) Sechler, along with many other meat producers, puts a big part of the blame on federal ethanol regulations. This isn’t a simple case of corrupt lobbyists for evil corporations, sadly; this is the flip side of one of the few remaining efforts by the EPA to postpone the end of the world by lowering greenhouse emissions. Ethanol is better for the environment than gasoline, but it requires 40% of the country’s total corn crop, by most measures. So that’s almost half of a corn crop that is already reduced by the drought and which needs to feed more animals every year to keep up with domestic and foreign meat appetites. Another side effect is that many producers end up buying ethanol by-products to use as feed, which are as gross as you might imagine, and which have the further effect of smuggling antibiotics into animals, since they are used extensively in corn farming.

(MORE: A Meat Lover Says Yes to Meatless Monday)

We need not fear the aporkalypse. We won’t be chomping soy pellets for dinner anytime soon. But the way things are going, meat will be more expensive, more unhealthy, and scarcer as time goes on. Even now the best meat, branded as “heritage” or “small farm,” has become a luxury item, available in a few stores and greenmarkets, to a lucky few. Cheap meat, though, of the kind Americans ate at the best of times, may soon be a myth and a memory.

MORE: Seven Foods You Should Really Eat Before You Die

10 comments
musicdorian
musicdorian like.author.displayName 1 Like

Eat legumes. Period.  They do not have fat, have plenty of cheap protien, and do not give you gas (unless you are a carnivore,  who rarely eats them.  Regular consumption adjusts your digestive system so little gas is produced.)  Legumes also don't require the amount of natural resources that animal protein requires.  Beans, are cheap, fatfree, nutrutious, readily available, and cruelty free.  Jam up your arteries with animal cholesterol, and you'll be on the viagra.  Eat fat free legumes, and you'll be ready to go anytime.

JonathanHarbour
JonathanHarbour

Honestly people. Just kill your own meat. I like the venison/deer meat you got yourself (Said venison/deer to clarify as venison was used in the past to mean the meat of many different game animals, whereas today we typically only hear deer called venison). 

Also you can learn to butcher it yourself so that you do not have to pay someone to  "process" the kill for you. Fill the freezer and meat for many moons. Also a few squirrels makes a great quick and easy brunswick stew (squirrel was the original main ingredient, but nowadays people turn their nose up at it).

Talendria
Talendria like.author.displayName 1 Like

Maybe we need to start teaching Buddhism in schools so people have a better appreciation for their impact on the environment.  Most of us were raised in a world with no consequences.  We had cheap, plentiful food and bottomless landfills that we never had to drive past.  Now we have to think about where our food comes from and try to limit our waste.  It would help if foodie culture would start embracing cost-effective, practical meals like stews or beans and rice.  We've branded those as poor people food, and now nobody wants to eat it.

Erik Chaffer
Erik Chaffer

I would like to know how antibiotics are used in the production of corn?  Does the author have any knowledge of ethanol or corn production?  How are the bi-products of ethanol gross???   The bi-product that is used for animal feed is simply the fiber and the protein left over after the yeast has "eaten" the carbohydrates.

He does however illustrate the problem that livestock producers face.  A farmer always has to increase his or her efficiency year in and year out to maintain profitability.  The farmer must do this while maintaining quality and a certain level of animal comfort.  uncomfortable animals do not produce efficiently.    Large factory style production systems may not evoke warm feelings in consumers but that is the price you pay for cheap food.

Greg Propper
Greg Propper

there’s no way to feed Americans living in or near poverty, as well as having tons of meat to export to China and elsewhere.

ummmm.  so to sound like a POS.   (finger) China.  everyone is bitching about exporting jobs, why in the hell are we exporting any food if that screws our own people?  If i have to pay $12 per lbs of cow so the Asians can have American cow then the system is idiotic. wouldn't the farmers make more money selling us meat at a reasonable price than to send it abroad and pay for shipping?Read more: http://ideas.time.com/2012/10/...

George Babbitt
George Babbitt

Soylent Green is people, is people!!!

Seriously, when the article that spews this alarmist crap also mentions the solution by way of telling us how we got here, I wonder what forces are at work to maintain the status quo. Get rid of corn ethanol. It has only an 80% combustion efficiency compared to gasoline, it's only financially viable with enormous subsidies, it hurts food supplies in the parts of the world that need that staple food source to survive rather than reduce greenhouse gases by 2% and also ask why automobiles keep getting more expensive and complicated an you will get the answer that the expensive modifications and computer aided fuel/air add-mixing that is needed to have corn-ethanol as part of our fuel mixture. Look at what Brazil is doing with sugar-cane-ethanol  to see a product that doesn't hurt feed or food prices, has a much higher combustion efficiency than corn-ethanol and because it is easy to manufacture, doesn't require the enormous subsidies to make it financially viable. The corn industry has blocked the importation of all sugar-cane-ethanol, because they would rather continue to get subsidies to ensure that we keep using a lesser product. So as we have created this problem through quid-pro-quo, let us get rid of it for yet another reason. Gasoline rules. And don't get me started on the 5 continent trip it takes to make a hybrid car battery pack, or the coal-burning powerplant that your super-duper all-electric pipsqueak of a car essentially plugs into each time it goes dead.

Vanessa
Vanessa

I agree with most of what you say--it's true.

Questions to ask: how does energy independence come into play here and what must be done to ensure both a cleaner fuel amp; more energy sovereignty. Also--how has deforestation effected GHGs and what role does Brazil--and their energy needs--play in this?

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jatindershoon
jatindershoon like.author.displayName 1 Like

Mahatama Gandhi, immortal words,"A COUNTRY IS KNOWN,HOW IT TREAT ITS ANIMALS."Time for pork-barrel to go and people should start hogging on FRUITS AND VEGETABLES, NOT ONLY IT IS GOOD FOR YOUR HEALTH,BUT WILL ALSO BRING FOOD PRICES DOWN.

Nathaniel M. Campbell
Nathaniel M. Campbell

"Even now the best meat, branded as “heritage” or “small farm,” has become a luxury item, available in a few stores and greenmarkets, to a lucky few. "

At least there's one foodie writer who is willing to admit this fact, rather than looking down his nose at the vast majority of us who simply don't have the disposable income to buy elite meat.